The Oriental Orthodox Churches around the world




The origin of the Armenian Church dates from the Apostolic Age. According to the ancient tradition, which is well supported by historical evidence, the two apostles of Christ, St. Thaddeus (John, 14: 22:24) and St. Bartholomew’s (John 1:43-51) laid the foundation of the Armenian Church. From the first to the third century Christianity in Armenia was a hidden religion under heavy and constant persecution by the pagan kings and princes.



In the first years of the fourth century (A.D. 301) Christianity was declared by King Tiridates III as State Religion. It is a widely known and well recognized fact that The Armenians were the first nation to embrace Christianity officially” (Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church). The greatest Apostle, whose missionary life and work, as a living sacrifice, made this acceptance of Christianity possible, was St. Gregory the illuminator who has been recognized and venerated as the Patron Saint of the Armenian Church.


This official and rather formal adherence to Christianity had to be followed by a full acceptance of the Christian faith in the sense of a real, genuine conversion. This was made possible through the translation of the Holy Scriptures together with the writings of the Church Fathers into Armenian. This highly important task was achieved by St. Sahag and St. Mestob and their disciples called the Holy Translators, in the first three decades of the fifth century. Through the labours of these Church divines, Christianity became the living and life-giving religion of the people. Thus, the Armenian Nation became a Christian Nation in the truest sense of the term.

In fact it is this intimate association of the Armenian Nation and Christian faith that explains to a very large extent the subsequent history of the Armenian People considered in he most significant aspects of their spiritual, cultural and national life. Particularly the continuous persecutions of the Armenians at the hands of the non-Christian peoples and governments in the neighboring countries of Armenia are the concrete and eloquent testimonies to that inseparable attachment of the Armenians to the Christian faith which could never be compromised even at the cost of martyrdom.

The Armenians in the fifth century, while fighting against Persian Mazdeism, declared that “We recognise the Gospel as our father and the Church Universal as our mother”. And, indeed, this principle has been the decisive factor all along their history which is often characterized as a “Martyrology”.



The Armenian Church in constant relation and unbroken communion with the Universal Church, faithfully followed the teachings of the first three Ecumenical Councils of Nicea, Constantinople and Ephesus. In the beginning of the sixth century (A.D. 506-8), she officially rejected the Council of Chalcedon seeing in it a revival of the dualistic – dyophysite understanding of the Person of Chit; a teaching which threatened to separate Christ’s Person in two and which was closely associated with the doctrine professed by Nestorivs who had been condemned by the Church and whose followers were bitterly opposed by the Armenians. Since then, the Armenian Church and the Hyzantine Church have tempted at several times to reach a common understanding and to restore unity, but that has not been possible because f lack of understanding of each other’s respective positions, on the one hand, and cause of the interference of non-theological factors in the course of negotiations, on the other.



From the middle of the seventh to the end of the ninth century, Armenia was under the Arab Moslem rule. The Church passed through a long and hard period of sufferings. But the Christian faith survived. From 85 to 1065 Armenia became again an independent State under the Bagratide Dynasty. A new era of peace, revival and prosperity flourished. New monasteries were founded: great cultural achievements were realized. But after 1045 the Byzantine Empire, instead of supporting and strengthening the Armenian Kingdom, adopted a policy of subjugating and depriving it of its independent status. Thus, the Seljuk’s – the predecessors of the Turks – invaded Armenia and destroyed the Capital City of Ani (1065). Once more Armenia as devastated by the Barbarian forces. Many Armenians left their country and migrated towards western regions.



They came to settle in Cilicia where they organized their ecclesiastical and national life under a new principality which rapidly grew in strength to such an extent that soon it became a Kingdom. From the end of the eleventh to the end of the fourteenth century the center of the Armenian national and ecclesiastical life was in Cilicia where the city of Sis was made the Capital City. The Catholicossate had been first established in Hromkia and in 1239 was transferred to Sis. This is why the Catholicossate of Cilicia is sometimes referred to s ‘the Catholicossate of Sis’.



In 1375 the Kingdom of Cilicia was destroyed by the Mameluks of Egypt. The Catholicossate continued in Sis and took upon herself the whole and most difficult charge of the leadership of the nation. Ceaseicss attacks, devastations and plunderings were committed against the people of Cilicia namely upon the inhabitants of Sis.

In the meantime, Armenia Major was having a relatively peaceful time. There had been even a cultural awakening accomplished by the monastic orders. Now that the kingdom of Cilicia had fallen and the situation I Cilicia was deteriorating, bishops and Church divines (Vardapets) of great influence in Armenia Major made plans to elect a Catholicos in Etchmiadzin, the original and highly venerated place of the Catholicossate which had ceased o function as a Catholicossal See since 485. Thus, in 1441 they elected Kirakos Virapetsi, a devout monk. At the same time Krikor Moussabekiantz (1439-1446) was the Catholicos in Cilicia. Since 1441 therefore, there have been two Catholicossates in the Armenian Church with equal rights and privileges and with their respective jurisdictions.



From the fifteenth to the beginning of the twentieth century, the Catholcossate of Cilicia continued to serve the Armenian people who survived the invasion of the Mameluks and were subjugated to the unbearable tyrannic rule of various Turkish chieftains, nomadic peoples who by constant attacks kept the Arian peoples under servile and fearful situation. Many Catholicoses (Church Heads) were even strangled and killed in different cruel manners. These were the hardest and darkest centuries of the Cilician Catholicossate. Nonetheless, the Catholicossate survived and served her people in silent and heroic faithfulness.

However, the authority of the Catholicossate was very much reduced in the eyes of the Ottoman Sultans who since 1461 had recognized the Armenian Patriarchate of Constantinople as the official ecclesiastical and civil authority over all the Armenian Churches under Ottoman domination whether depending on the jurisdiction of Etchmiadzin or Cilicia. In fact, it as the Conqueror of Constantinople, Sultan Muhamed II, who nominated Hovakim the Bishop of Broussa, as the Patriarch of the Armenians under the Ottoman rule in 1461. As the politico-ecclesiastical authority of the Armenian Patriarchates of Constantinople grew in the subsequent centuries, the authority of the Catholicossate of Cilicia reduced on the grounds of civil right and activities. But the Catholicos of Cilicia was recognized as the supreme ecclesiastical Head of the Armenians in Cilicia. The main Dioceses under his jurisdiction were: SIS, ADAANA, HAJIN, PAYAS, PERIA (Aleppo), MARASH, (Germanicia), ZEYTOUN (Ulnia), FERNOUZ, AYNTAB, ANTIOCH, MELITENE, OZGAT, GURUN (Kurin), CYPRUS, in fact, all the main cities and regions of Cilicia and surrounding areas such as Syria and Cyprus.

In spite of the intolerant historical circumstances there have been some periods of constructive work. Two names must be singled out in this respect: Catholicos Kirakos Atchabahian (1797-18820, CALLED Kirakos the Great and Mekerditch Kejsezian (1871-1894) who made great efforts to strengthen the Catolcossate with new constructions and visited their faithful in the parishes and organized the Dioceses.



In 1902, a new Catholicos was elected in the person of His Holiness Sahag II Khabayan. A learned and devoted servant of God, a member of Jerusalem Religious Community, be made heroic efforts to organize the Catholicossate. He opened a Seminary to prepare qualified priests for the pastoral care of a stricken people. But a few years later, in 1909, the massacre of Adana made 30,000 victims of his faithful. Five years later, the First World War broke out and the darkest times came back upon the Armenian people. During the War, 1915-1918 more than one million Armenians were massacred by the Turks. The rest were deported and dispersed in various parts of the word. The war ended, the Armenians of Cilicia returned to their country to rebuild their homes and reorganized their ecclesiastical and national life. But when the French Forces evacuated Cilicia. The Armenians could no longer live in Turkey without protection. So again they left their homeland n 1921 and found refuge mostly in Syria and Lebanon which were under French Mandate. The Catholicossal See in Sis was confiscated by the Turks. Catholicos Sahag II followed his flock. The hospitality shown towards the Arian refugees by the Arab people was more than comforting. The friendship of the Armenian and Arab peoples was even more firmly confirmed and strengthened.

Catholicos Sahag had no permanent residence. In order to look after the spiritual and national needs of his people stricken at heart by their deportation and dispersion he was forced to wander to and fro in Syria and Lebanon. Under these circumstances, the Catholicossate was looking for a new site in Lebanon for establishing there his headquarters.



In 1930, the Catholicossate was established in Antelias1 thus a new era was opened in her history with the establishment of the full Diocesan administrative organization, the founding of the Theological Seminary and the Community House for the training of the members of the Religions Community and the parish priests. The Armenian people spread all over the word looked at the Catholicossate with hopes and expectations. The Seminary was going to be a center of theological and Armenolgical learning from where new servants of God would come forth to take upon themselves the sucred mission of those servants of God who fell under recent moral blow of the Turkish massacres. Only a young generation of fully committed clergymen could introduce new forces of vitality among the dispersed children of the Armenian Church.



In order to fulfill the great task now entrusted to the Catholicossate of Cilicia. Catholicos Sahag II, already advanced in age and being deeply affect by the long sufferings of his people, asked the help of Archbishop BABGEN GULESSERIAN, who was enthroned as COADJUTOR CATHOLICOS in 1931. Son a printing press was established in Antelias, a monthly review under the name HASK started, together with religious, educational and historical publications. But the expectations of Catholicos Sahag with regard to his succession were not fulfilled. The Coadjutor – Catholicos Badgen, who was to succeed him, passed away in 1936, after five years of intensive and most fruitful work.

The Archbishop of Cyprus, PETROS SARAJIAN was nominated Vicar-General by Catholicos Sahag himself. Thanks to the competent administration of the Vicar-General, the property of Antelias was purchased from the American Neur East Relief which from 1922-1928 had an Armenian Orphanage on the grounds where the Catholieossate was established. A new building for the Seminary was erected. The Cathedral was built through a generous donation of an unknown benefactor, whose name, Sarkis Kenadiian was announced only after his death. A chapel in memory of one million Armenian martyrs as well as a residence for the Catholicos were built at the same time. The Catholicossate now acquired solid foundations in Antelias.

Catholicos Sahag passed away in 1939. He was succeeded by the Vicar-General. CATHOLICOS PETROS I who died the following year.

The Second World War had already started. The election of the new Catholicos took place in 1943. ARCHBISHOP KARKKIN HOVSEPIANGTZ, the Primate of the Armenian Church in North America was elected. He could not come to Antelias until 1945.

During his Pontificate (1945-1952) the Catholicossate flourished primarily in cultural activities. The Catholicos himself being a great scholar encouraged the higher studies in the Seminary and gave impetus to the publishing work. Valuable volumes were printed; he monthly review was enriched in contents: the number of the students of the Seminary increased; the academic curriculum was enlarged together with the addition of two years in the course of study; new and well qualified professors were called to join the Faculty. The scope of the work of the Catholicossate was widened. New priests were sent to various parts of the world to serve the Churches.

Four years elapsed between his death (1952) and the election of his successor, HIS HOLINESS ZAREH I (1956). A young saintly and devoted servant of God, the first graduate of the Seminary of Antelias, Catholicos Zareh was an experienced Church Leader in Syria, having served us Primate of Aleppo for sixteen years. During his short lived reign, most beneficial achievements were gained. The work of the Catholicossate was extended to such communities in the Diaspora who had been in desperate need of spiritual care for many years. On the eager and urgent request of the Armenian People in Iran, in Greece and a great number of communities of the United States of America he sent young bishops and priests to minister to them the Word of God and the Sacrament of the Church and keep them firm to the tradition of their forefathers.

The relations of the Catholicossate with the other Christian Churches and the Governments of the Middle East were strengthened in friendship and through collaboration.

The Seminary was given much encouragement and his personal insights and saintly life had a determining influence on all students who readily entered the service of the Church by joining the Religious Community of the Catholicossate.

It was on his inspiration and under his personal guidance that the Catholicossate of Cilicia entered the field of the Ecumenical Movement by participating in the World Council of Churches and by sending observers to the Vatican Council to its three consecutive sessions.

His close associate, ARCHBISHOP KHOREN PAROYAN, the Primate of the Armenian Church in Lebanon was elected in May 1963. Under his leadership and through his devotion and ever growing and flourishing activities the Catholicossate of Cilicia is continuing to serve the Armenian Nation in faithfulness to Christ and to the tradition of our forefathers.


During the five centuries of their distinct existence the two Catholicossates have maintained peaceful and respectful relations. The spirit of brotherly love, mutual understanding and cooperation in the sacred spiritual service to the Armenian Nation have constituted the basic conditions of and the factors for the maintenance of the peaceful STATUS QUO in the service to the one and the same Church.

However, a few conflicts have occurred in the course of history (one in the 17th century, another one in the 19th century, and a third one in twentieth century) which have been solved in the same spirit of brotherly love and on the basis of mutual recognition of each other’s independent status. The same principle and spirit constitute the positive and constructive factors in their present relationship. It must be said that the primacy of honour of the Catholicossate of Etchmiadzin has always been, and is being, recognized by the Catholicossate of Cilicia.



Faithful to the genuine ecumenical spirit and openness of the Armenian Church, the Catholicossate of Cilicia has always been in friendly relationship with all the Christian Churches, and particularly with the sister Eastern Churches. Brotherly visits and close association between the Catholicos of Cilicia and other Church Leaders in the Middle East constitute one of the most eloquent pages of the history of the Cilician Catholicossate.

Being sensitive to the urgent need of the Churches for mutual understanding, cooperation and unity, she joined the World Council of Churches in August, 1962 at he Central Committee meeting in Paris. Now she is fully engaged in the common task of the Churches in search of Christian solidarity and unity. From the first session onwards she has sent observers to the II Vatican Council.

It gives her the greatest joy to see now the eagerly expected Conference of the Heads of the sister Oriental Orthodox Churches convened by His Majesty Haile Selassie I the Emperor of Ethiopia. She believes that the coming conference will be a real blessing for all the sister Churches involved, and it will prove also a great value for the cause of Christian unity as a whole which above all is the will of our common Lord Jesus Christ.


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The Oriental Orthodox Churches Addis Ababa conference January, 1965

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